- Untranslating the Anthropocene
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. . . the humanities have a problem with the word “human.”—Bruno Latour, “Life among Conceptual Characters”
“What is needed,” writes Emily Apter in her introduction to the English-language edition of Barbara Cassin’s Dictionary of Untranslatables, “is not a firmer or clearer translation of difficult words, but a feeling for how relatively simple words chase each other around in context.”1 Adopting this approach to knowing and to knowledge, which recognizes simultaneously the necessity of lexeme-bound concepts for thinking and the impossibility, revealed in the process of what Cassin calls “philosophizing in languages,” of those concepts ever having a fixed meaning, which is—after Derrida—always deferred, Cassin’s monumental Dictionary unravels the translations, mistranslations, retranslations, partial overlaps, and conjoined histories of concepts—from abstraction to zMion—as they pass between languages such as Arabic, Basque, Catalan, Danish, English, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Latin, and Russian.2 It is not supposed to be a utilitarian dictionary. The user cannot “look up” a given term in order to locate some preexisting “equivalent” in another language. On the contrary, the user ends up convinced that there is ultimately no source-language original, only a swarm of partial equivalents. Any given term is shown to have gathered its various meanings and associations from bumping into, and off of, other related terms in the same and other languages. Some recent critical work—especially that of Timothy Clark—has brought deconstruction to what we might loosely term “eco-theory” or the “environmental humanities,” but Cassin’s and Apter’s specific push for “philosophizing in languages” has largely ignored, and been largely ignored by, our collective arrival into the Anthropocene.3 Scientists and humanities scholars have so far expended considerable critical energy on seeking out “firmer or clearer” definitions of the new epoch. But neither community of scholars has paid much direct attention to the “relatively simple” etymon anthropos. It is not enough—as countless books and articles do—to “translate” it as “man” or “human.”
Before a first trial of untranslating the Anthropocene, let us note that while attempts to find “firmer or clearer” definitions of the word have taken many forms, a fair number of them fit into one of two categories. The first category of responses concerns the seeking out of ever-clearer definitions: for example, did the Anthropocene begin in the late eighteenth century with James Watt’s invention of the steam engine, or on July 16, 1945 with the Trinity nuclear test, or else in 1610 when atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reached a low point of 271.8 p.p.m. following the genocide of New World inhabitants and concomitant regeneration of forest and grasslands?4 Here, definition is about chronology—but it is also about tethering the anthropos to a certain entanglement with technology, as if the anthropos of the Anthropocene only comes into being via its nonhuman opposite, as if the so-called Age of Man dates from when “Man” no longer relied only on “men.” The second category of responses, equally exhibiting unspoken faith in the capacity of words to possess precise definitions, takes the shape of a proliferation [End Page 57] of alternative or supplemental terms, which all eject the anthropos or mark it as somehow insufficient: if the Anthropocene does not suit, try on for size the Agnotocene, An throbscene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene, Eremocene, Homogenocene, Manthropocene, Naufragocene, Northropocene, Outiscene, Phagocene, Plantationocene, Polemocene, Phronocene, Thalassocene, Thanatocene, Thermocene, or some of the other cenes that have circulated.5 Overlapping and interrogating each other, these terms single out, reveal, and develop a variety of conceptual flickerings—including and perhaps especially blind spots—of the Anthropocene as concept. The first responses seek out geological chronologies and technological alliances; the second try to refine the original conceptual proposition and its consequences. In their pursuit of clarity, both turn on an assumption that concepts can, so to speak, be tied down. And in the process they suggest that the anthropos is not the right etymon—or at least that if it is, it is only in the deferrals it initiates. What if, to take this realization seriously, we take a different...